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Coronavirus has not suspended politics – it has revealed the nature of power

David Walter Runciman FBA  is an English academic who teaches politics and history at Cambridge University, where he is Head of the Department of Politics and International Studies, Professor of Politics, and a fellow of Trinity Hall, Cambridge (Wikipedia)

We keep hearing that this is a war. Is it really? What helps to give the current crisis its wartime feel is the apparent absence of normal political argument. The prime minister goes on TV to issue a sombre statement to the nation about the curtailment of our liberties and the leader of the opposition offers nothing but support. Parliament, insofar as it is able to operate at all, appears to be merely going through the motions. People are stuck at home, and their fights are limited to the domestic sphere. There is talk of a government of national unity. Politics-as-usual has gone missing.

But this is not the suspension of politics. It is the stripping away of one layer of political life to reveal something more raw underneath. In a democracy we tend to think of politics as a contest between different parties for our support. We focus on the who and the what of political life: who is after our votes, what they are offering us, who stands to benefit. We see elections as the way to settle these arguments. But the bigger questions in any democracy are always about the how: how will governments exercise the extraordinary powers we give them? And how will we respond when they do?

These are the questions that have always preoccupied political theorists. But now they are not so theoretical. As the current crisis shows, the primary fact that underpins political existence is that some people get to tell others what to do. At the heart of all modern politics is a trade-off between personal liberty and collective choice. This is the Faustian bargain identified by the philosopher Thomas Hobbes in the middle of the 17th century, when the country was being torn apart by a real civil war.

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